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The Next Starchitect?

How do you build a shockingly successful career in architecture before the age of 45? (Hint: It helps to have gobs of talent, Frank Gehry’s phone number, and the best last name in Minnesota.)

The Next Starchitect?
Photo by David Bowman

(page 4 of 4)

The hardware on the building is more straightforward. Dayton runs his hand over a balustrade made of agricultural grating, coated in zinc. “This is as dressy as we get in my office,” he says. “It’s rough and it’s tough, but it’s totally practical. It’s perfectly real—there’s nothing too fussy about it.”

The performance hall is marginally dressier, with Douglas fir panels lining the walls. Previous plans for MacPhail, O’Fallon says, contained a standard proscenium stage: artists at the front of the room, audience stacked in the back. Dayton’s hall, with its adjustable floor in the center of the room, can replicate that setup—or just about anything else. Indeed, instead of training all the attention on the performer, the hall has a picture window at the back that’s 16-feet tall and 26-feet across. It’s a bit like a movie screen, projecting the placid faces of the buildings outside—a Warhol film, maybe.

Obscuring the riverfront is a 16-story, block-long apartment high rise called the Rivergate from the 1970s. Asked how he likes this prominent neighbor, Dayton chuckles aloud and flashes a little of his inner Nouvel: “I hope someone will buy it, tear it down, and put up something good.”

No one is sitting at the front desk when Dayton emerges from a client meeting in the firm’s open conference room. He’s wearing blue jeans today and he’s got two or three days worth of stubble. Inside, local arts impresario John Kremer is conferring with a JDD architect about his plans to add a residential and studio annex to the California building in northeast Minneapolis. Specifically, he’s talking about the mortgage market. And when developers talk about the mortgage market these days, it means they’re not talking about moving forward with a project.

The vacant front desk, it seems, is a casualty of six layoffs from the week before. Dayton enjoys a reputation for paying his employees generously and the occasion marked the first time his firm has been forced to contract. “It was awful,” Dayton says. “Just awful.”

This past summer, JDD submitted proposals to draft new arts complexes for both the Macalester and Carleton campuses. The firm didn’t win either job. While the Macalester bid—submitted with the avant-garde Boston firm Machado and Silvetti—made for an exciting presentation, it apparently struck the clients as too adventurous.

Dayton is disappointed but unapologetic. “I’m not going to give you a collegiate Gothic colonnade,” he says. “I don’t do that work.” He jokes that he can always hold out hope for St. Olaf, but then it’s difficult to imagine Dayton working in somber limestone.

This situation has prompted Dayton to reach an obvious—yet uncomfortable—conclusion: “There’s only so many arts centers you can build in Minnesota.”

One plum commission lurks: a $90 million gut job of Orchestra Hall. But that boon seems fated to go to one of those bards of the blueprint who sip Veuve Clicquot at donor galas and spend a night in the Chambers every five or six months. Plus, the task is six times the budget of MacPhail. Even Dayton, whose superstructure of modesty rests on a robust foundation of self-regard, recognizes that Orchestra Hall is a serious stretch for JDD.

Then again, Osmo Vänskä, the orchestra’s conductor, donated a clarinet suite to MacPhail with more than $50,000. And after touring the MacPhail site, he expressed plans to stage a Minnesota Orchestra chamber-music series in the new concert hall. Dayton is a dark horse, but he’s a dark horse who’s made a habit of finishing in the money.

For now, though, the residential market looks to be in a deep coma, and Dayton holds an aversion to doing mundane commercial work. “The way we always put the question,” Dayton explains, “is, Do you want to do Taco Bells? And the answer is, No, I don’t want to do Taco Bells.” That yo no quiero didn’t bend when Dayton consulted with each staffer at the time of the layoffs, he says. “The feedback I got—both from those who left and those who stuck around—was ‘hang in there.’ What defines our business is the integrity of the design.”

What that stance leaves to JDD is the rest of the nation: a vast playing field with boundless opportunities where practically no one has ever heard of James Dayton. It seems ironic, even a little cruel, that so many of the values that define Dayton’s professional persona—the family philanthropy, the engagement with local museums and artists, the wide social network—count for so little on that bigger stage.

Thomas Fisher believes that the success of MacPhail will open bid lists to JDD in other cities and states. Dayton’s wish list is for a small college performance space or a law school lecture hall. Until then, the practice is stuck mailing out the glorified cover letters known as RFPs and RFQs: requests for proposals and requests for qualifications. As Dayton describes it, these opportunities are like the opening round of American Idol: less degrading, perhaps, but with scantly better odds. At the same time, JDD is hiring a marketing director to promote the firm outside of Minnesota.

If there’s an upside to this lull, it may be that Dayton had the time to spend a full month in Maine at his family’s summer quarters. And in mid-August, he took another crack at the Federal Duck Stamp Contest. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service runs the art competition, and it attracts hundreds of entries. The featured fowls this year are the mallard, the American green-winged teal, the northern pintail, the canvasback, and the harlequin duck. Dayton studied painting at Yale, and a few weekends each fall, he hunts at a club his grandfather founded outside Alexandria. Neither experience has seemed to help him one bit.

“There are five judges and five rounds of judging,” he explains. “The winners get 25 points, usually, or 24. The first round they get five points, and they advance. The second round they get five points—a vote from each judge.” He stops to laugh. “I’ve never gotten a single point.”

It’s a hobby, a retirement pursuit, this duck stamp painting. It’s also a pure meritocracy: a blind competition against a national talent pool. Maybe that’s why Dayton keeps trying to win.

Michael Tortorello is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer.

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